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The Book of Other People

The Book of Other People

Author:Zadie Smith
Release Date:2008
Publisher:Penguin Books

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 2/6/2008

Well-developed characters make or break a work of fiction; without them, a novel or short story is doomed to failure. It's a rule every writer--from award-winning novelists to struggling MFA candidates--and every reader knows by heart. In an effort to hammer this idea home (as if it even needed reiterating), The Book of Other People sets out to prove the crucial importance of character for both readers and writers. Assembling 23 of today's freshest literary voices (including Jonathan Safran Foer, Vendela Vida, A.M. Homes, and Aleksandar Hemon) under the editorial direction of Zadie Smith, Other People is another experimental short-story collection--akin to Michael Chabon's two McSweeney's volumes devoted to genre fiction--in which both the writers and their work serve a larger mission statement.

"The hope was that the finished book might be a lively demonstration of the fact that there are as many ways to create `character' . . . as there are writers," Smith writes in her preamble. Her thesis is tame enough to make Other People an entertaining conceit without coming across as a pretentious treatise on the state of character in the short story. The book's beneficiary is 826 New York, a branch of Dave Eggers' nonprofit writing workshops for children, so the aesthetic entertainment serves a moral purpose as well.

Of the stories themselves, named after their subjects and organized in alphabetical order, the most enjoyable ones are those that break out of traditional expectations of what short stories and character studies should do. Toby Litt's "The Monster" is a rambling paragraph about a monstrous creature's indistinguishable life; graphic novelist Daniel Clowes' "Justin M. Damiano" is a hilarious riff on the life of an internet movie critic; the title character of Dave Eggers' "Theo" is a giant who emerges from under the earth and pines for a soul mate; and Chris Ware's "Jordan Wellington Lint" uses the artist's signature minute panels to describe the life of a boy from conception to age 13.

Whether desperate nobodies, stuffy upper-class art aesthetes, a woman claiming to be the daughter of Nelson Mandela, a novelist, or even Jesus, the characters in The Book of Other People form a curious dramatis personae. They are all, thankfully, developed enough to hold our attention and generate, however briefly, some emotional connection.

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